07 Mar Text – Context – Pretext DR. T.N STERRETT
“A text out of its context is a pretext.” This is an old saying, perhaps a trite one, but it has important meaning for the study of the Bible what is its meaning?
Whenever a passage or verse (text) is separated from what goes before and after it (context), then its meaning is often misunderstood even by earnest Bible students. Furthermore that meaning may then be used to justify some action, and so the text has become a pretext (an excuse).
For example, a person reading the Bible finds in 1 Cor. 6:12 and 10:23 the statement that “All things are lawful.” So he says, “I can divorce my wife and marry the woman I want, because the Bible says that all things are lawful.” Thus the man has taken the statement of Scripture (the text) and separated it from its setting (the context), and thus made it a pretext, or excuse, for doing what he wants to do. If he studied the context along with the text he would notice that the Apostle Paul in these references is not referring to all things absolutely, including sinful things. Rather he is talking about certain practices such as eating meat offered to idols, which may not in themselves be sinful, but may be wrong in certain circumstances.
The above may seem like an extreme example. Perhaps no one would make such an application of a passage. But the principle is there. Anyone can misunderstand and apply the Bible wrongly, if he ignores the context.
The Bible is not written as a series of verses. In fact the division into verses was not made in the original writings of the Bible. They were introduced much later. Therefore they are not inspired. No, the Bible was written in connected passages. Therefore it is meant to be studied that way. It can be a foolish or even a dangerous thing to take verses from their context and understand them or use them in an independent way.
It is easy to see that the narrative or the historical portions of the Bible are connected. This is the nature of narrative. For example, there is the familiar story of Abraham being tested by God to see. if he was willing to offer up Isaac as a sacrifice on Mount Moriah. Even by itself the story is very forcible. But the meaning is greatly increased when the context is noted in earlier chapters, that this child was born supernaturally in fulfilment of the promise of God, and that God had also promised that it would be through this child that God’s further promises of blessing for Abraham would be fulfilled.
Parables also are- given in a certain setting or context. In Luke 15 there is the familiar story of “The Prodigal Son.” This is often interpreted and taught as though the main thing is the sin and repentance of the younger son. But when the context in the first two verses of: the chapter is noticed carefully, it becomes clear that the main thrust of the parable (and the other two parables also) is to teach what God really thinks of sinners. Jesus thus shows the reason
why He was receiving sinners despite the objections of the Pharisees. It is true that the setting or context of the parable is got always easy to determine, but in most cases it is indicated and must be noticed.
The teaching portions of the Bible, such as in the Prophets and the Epistles, also show a development of thought, and therefore the necessity of noting the context. In I Cor. 13:8 we find the statement “As for tongues, they will cease.” Separated from the context, this could suggest that the speaking in tongues which came in the book of Acts at the beginning of the Church period is no more taking place and therefore every manifestation of tongues now must be false. But the context indicates that the time when tongues shall cease, according to that verse, is not the present time which is the “imperfect” period, but rather the future days when the “perfect” shall come in.
Even the poetical sections of the Bible, as the Psalms, Proverbs, and parts of the Prophets, often show the importance of context. There may be chapters in the Proverbs and a few other places where this does not seem so necessary Psalms 2:8 contains the statement, “Ask of me and I will give thee the heathen for thine inheritance.” As it stands this statement may well seem to be a wonderful promise for evangelists who go to preach the Gospel in countries where Christ has not been known. It might seem to be an assurance that in answer to prayer people will be won to Christ on a massive scale. But the context quite cleanly is a picture of judgement and destruction. It is not a picture of salvation. There are in other places in the Bible clear promises for the salvation of people in response to Gospel preaching. But this statement should not be lifted out of its context to mean that.
Some people may say, “But surely God gives promises to us apart from the context.” Remember, however, that God gave those promises in context. It may be that on a few occasions God may speak through a promise apart from its context, but this is not the normal thing, and we should not make,t our normal practice to claim promises apart from their setting. We ought to read and study the promise in the setting in which the Holy Spirit inspired it. Only then we can be sure of getting the true meaning of the promise. Much nonsense has been preached when people take promises or other verses entirely apart from the setting in which God gave them.
Let it be our definite practice to study and understand the Word of God in the way that God gave that Word –that is in context. For it is true that “a text apart from its context is a pretext.”
Taken from Evangelical Student, March – June 1970